Throughout the ribald 17th century, syphilis was more widespread and devastating than AIDs is now. Hardly a subject for great literature, the diseases actually received its name as a result of a poem. Titled “Syphilus” it was written by a poet named Fracastorer in 1530, and told the sad tale of a shepherd suffering from the Great Pox.
Debate still rages about how syphilis made it to Europe. The epidemic first hit the continent in 1493. If you find something familiar about that date, you are not alone. Many historians trace the outbreak to Columbus’ return from the New World, theorizing that his randy sailors brought back more than coffee and chocolate from the West Indies. At the same time, Europe was engaged in one of its seemingly endless wars and so the massive movements of many men was really all the little virus needed to take it from the heel of Italy’s boot to the fjords of Scandinavia.
However, that theory has been challenged by others who offer up evidence of the effects of syphilis in several ancient Chinese texts as well as the Bible. Further cementing their claims that the virus traveled from Europe to the New World instead of vice versa is that there are no stories or evidence of New World natives suffering from any of its symptoms before Columbus sailed the ocean blue.
It wasn’t until the 19th century that it was discovered that syphilis and gonorrhea were actually two different diseasese. Phillipe Ricord, a French scientist, was examining syphilitic chancres when he made not only this discovery, but also that the disease progressess through three infectious stages.
The primary stage starts with a lesion called a chancre that typically shows up as near the point of infection: on the penis, vagina, mouth, lips or any other part of the body where an infection can occur. Normally, this chancre develops over the course of about a month, usually healing on its own in roughly one week. But that’s the problem; simply because the sore disappears doesn’t mean the infection will follow suit. Rather, it progresses to stage two.
Stage two of the disease is often marked by a rash made of very small brown sores that can emerge from thee weeks to six weeks after the chancre appears. The rash may show up all over the body, or just locally, though it nearly always develop on the palms of the hand and/or the soles of the feet. Of key importance is cutting down on your contact with other people during the second stage since the infection can spread very easily through contact with broken skin. The rash should heal after a few weeks, though sometimes it may take several months. In addition to the rash, other symptoms of stage two of syphilis can include: fever, swollen lymph nodes, muscle aches, hair loss, loss of appetite and symptoms normally associated with the flu.
The third stage is known as the early latent phase. It’s most distinguishing characteristic is the reverting back to symptoms experienced during the second phase. A person can display none of the symptoms of syphilis more than two years after the beginning of the third stage yet still be infectious enough to transmit the disease through intercourse or a transfusion. About a third of those who reach this stage can expect to advance to a fourth stage after years, or even decades. The fourth stage, called Tertiary Syphilis, can go on to infect the brain, skin and even the bones. This stage used to affect far more people, but it has become far more rare thanks to antibiotics.
It was Ricord’s initial research that led to to the use of antibiotics. Ricord’s research was instrumental in the eventual breakthrough in treatment of Dr. Paul Ehrlich, which was documented with surprising accuracy in the Edward G. Robinson film Dr. Ehrlich’s Magic Bullet. Ehrlich uncovered the benefit chemotherapeutic methods for battling the disease by seeking out and destroying the infecting organisms that caused syphilis. His work lay the groundwork for the introduction of penicillin.
Indeed, penicillin at first seemed to be a genuine magic bullet. As it turned out, however, new strains developed immunities to it and other antibiotics. Unfortunately, the wild and woolly use of antibiotics to treat the disease unveiled the problem of using antibiotics. If caught early enough, syphilis can be treated. It not caught early, however, very serious complications can result. It can make its way to the nervous system, affecting the brain, nerves and spinal chord. This is known as neurosyphilis and affects less than 10% of all sufferers. Symptoms include headaches, memory loss, paralysis and even delusions. Curiously, neurosyphilis occurs more often in men than women and in Caucasians than African-Americans. Further complicating the situation is that it can strike up to thirty-five years after the infection initially takes place.
Another serious complication is known as cardiovascular syphilis, which causes the valves of the heart to scar and can eventually lead to an aortic aneurysm or heart attack. Typically, this complication sets in anywhere from five to ten years following the initial infection, but in rare cases it has lain in wait for as long as thirty years.
Early diagnosis is especially important for women who are pregnant since syphilis can be passed on to the fetus if infected blood reaches the placenta. Over half of women with untreated syphilis will pass the disease to their child, and up to half of those pregnancies end in miscarriage. Pregnancies that do achieve term typically result in babies who will suffer from complications as varied as bone abnormalities, disfigurement and sensory problems. Pregnant women suffering from syphilis require treatment with penicillin, even if she’s allergic to it. Those who are allergic to penicillin must first undergo desensitizing procedures.
Of course, the most extreme complication of syphilis is death, but the fatality rate associated with syphilis has been reduced drastically since Ehrlich’s magic bullet. If caught soon enough, in fact, the chances of dying from syphilis are almost nil.